CLARKSBURG — Every week through the winter, water stopped coming out of the faucets at John Barnes’ house.
Each time, he grabbed two buckets and trudged to the side of a nearby hill, where water spilled from overflow pipes located just below the spring and storage tanks that supply the Briggsville Water District.
The water would typically come back on a day or two later, in the middle of the night. When the house rattled, Barnes knew he could shower again — and prepare for the next outage.
“The system is crumbling from within,” he said. “And they don’t have the revenue or resources to fix the problem.”
For more than five years, Barnes and his neighbors in Clarksburg have complained of frequent water outages from the tiny water district, which supplies water to buildings along the Hoosic River in one of the most densely settled parts of a quiet town.
Several years ago, the state began to hand down mandates. Residents elected a new board of water commissioners. And those commissioners set about trying to fix the problem. And yet, the outages continue.
As the federal government prepares to put more than $1 trillion into the country’s aging infrastructure, the volunteer stewards of this district are trying to repair major problems with their water infrastructure on a shoestring budget, with no one to rely on but themselves.
And they are inching closer to a solution to their water headaches — and trying to pass along a better infrastructure to future generations.
The Briggsville Water District
If you look at the Briggsville Water District on a vertical scale, Barnes lives near the top. That's bad for him because the district is fed by gravity. The water starts at the Red Mill Spring, flows into a concrete storage tank near 494 River Road and travels downhill along the road.
The district serves about 180 people through 63 connections, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. It is the Berkshires’ smallest drinking water system by population served, according to a 2014 Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study. Most people in Clarksburg rely instead on wells or water from the city of North Adams.
According to experts and local officials, the district’s gravity-based system is the crux of the issue.
As water flows downhill, it can escape through leaks in decades-old lateral pipes, the lines that carry water from the main to each house. That makes the pressure in the system drop, a problem compounded at certain times of the day when people are most likely to shower, clean their dishes and run their washing machines.
Consumers need a certain amount of pressure to get water flowing up their own lateral pipes — and the higher they are in the system, the more pressure they need. Without that necessary pressure, the residents closest to the spring find themselves with no water coming out of the faucets.
That is what happened over the winter, when a leak near Town Hall persisted for months, intermittently cutting off the water for Barnes and some of his neighbors.
According to DEP documents provided to The Eagle, complaints of periodic water shortages began as early as 2015. At the time, the district told the DEP that the shortages were a result of “frozen water lines, water leaks, customers filling swimming pools, and faulty equipment.”
By 2016, the outages were occurring regularly, according to a survey of local water districts published by the Massachusetts Office of the State Auditor.
The entry for Clarksburg read: “Residents on the east side of Town, run by a co-op are experiencing frequent water outages, and capacity problems. There needs to be significant investments in water line replacements that neither the Town nor Co-op has.”
The 'redheaded stepchild'
At Carl McKinney’s house, just up River Road from Barnes, the water tends to go off in the mornings — when there is a big leak in the system.
“That's the puzzling thing,” he said. “It's almost like clockwork, at 6:30 in the morning.”
McKinney, a former Clarksburg town administrator, serves as chairman of the board of water commissioners. The district also has an operator and an accountant. All of them, except the accountant, are volunteers, according to McKinney. All inherited the problem.
“People want government to fix things?” he said. “Government is a collection of us. We are the government.”
The people who set up the district? “They’re all dead,” McKinney said.
Local residents formed the Briggsville Water District in 1980 to replace an existing water system, which had been created so locals would not have to rely on shallow wells but which had started to degrade.
They named the new district after the section of the town, which McKinney says refers to the Briggs brothers, who owned and operated a mill by the river.
A few years in, district leaders replaced the system’s main line. Then, very little happened. The district became what McKinney calls the town’s “redheaded stepchild.”
“The district kind of floated along,” McKinney said. “The people died off. And nobody replaced them. So, we're trying to put everything back together.”
By 2016, the DEP had stepped in with mandates: The district should install a water meter, clarify its leadership, remove a booster pump that was not permitted, and fulfill a half-dozen other requirements.
At the time, McKinney was town administrator. The district wanted the Select Board to take over, and the board did so temporarily. But, board members quickly decided to shed that duty, since the 1980 act establishing the entity mandated that commissioners belong to the district.
After a sparsely attended meeting in 2019, the district once again had an independent board, which included Deborah Lapine and Mary Giron. They put in a water meter and began to check off DEP boxes. But, the leaks continued.
By U.S. standards, the district’s main line is relatively young, a spry three decades and change.
“The problem is, when they put in the main, all of the lateral lines — the lines from the main line to the dwelling or the business — were not replaced,” McKinney said. “So, that's where, historically, the leaks have been.”
The district has plenty of water. The problem is that water rushes through the system and escapes through leaks in lateral pipes, some of which date to World War II.
“In the lower side, when you have a breakdown there, it drains the whole darn system,” McKinney said.
Property owners are responsible for their own pipes, and the district has few shut-offs, which means one leak can affect many people. To fix leaks, the district has to find them. That job falls to Clebe Scott.
When the town turned its attention to the water problem a few years ago, officials discovered that Scott was the only person still working to keep the district running.
For decades, the Clarksburg resident had been operating the water system, keeping his certifications up to date, testing for chemicals and repairing leaks — all as a volunteer.
He first got roped in when a neighbor, George Carson, asked for help.
Carson was creating the district and needed to put down a water operator’s name. Scott had his water operator’s license because he needed it for his job with the state park system. So, Carson asked if he could make Scott the operator, “just on paper,” Scott recalls — and recruit him for manual labor.
“I was younger than him, so, I think he liked the way I dug a hole,” Scott said.
In the 1990s, Carson died. That is when Scott started getting the calls, and they never stopped. Now, it was his responsibility to keep the water running: for his family, for himself and for his neighbors.
He soon discovered that it was a thankless task.
“No one wants anything to do with the water until there's a problem,” he said. “People always stop and say, ‘Oh, jeez, got a leak.’ And, yeah, give me a call if I can help. But, you know, people don't want to serve on boards, or have anything to do with anything until they're affected.”
And once the problem is gone, he said, so is the attention.
“I appreciate everyone's good wishes and all that,” he said. “But, good wishes don't do the dishes.”
The water stethoscope
Scott says massive leaks in the system spring up only once a year or so. Some of them are obvious, like when water bubbles up into someone’s yard. Others require detective work: Scott uses a tool that detects the murmur of water flowing below ground.
“It’s like a stethoscope,” Scott said. “A listening device. These metal disks lay flat on the ground, and you listen. If there’s a fair leak, and you’ve got hard pavement, you may hear it.”
Scott finds leaks by trying to figure out where water is running when it should not be: the middle of the night. He lies down on side streets and listens to the lateral pipes.
“If you can hear water still moving, if nobody’s awake, there’s a good chance the leak is down there,” he said.
Big leaks can be all-consuming. Scott spent most of the coronavirus pandemic winter tracking down the leak near the Town Hall. On top of that, his routine responsibilities grow each year, with more forms to fill out from the state, more testing requirements to hit, more demands piled on top of a one-man operation.
“I’m not the only guy out there doing this sort of thing,” he said. “Across the rural water system landscape, there are many people that are like this. The people I talk to are totally dedicated to their systems.”
The infrastructure problem
Across the country, 50,000 drinking water systems serve 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to Casey Brown, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Most of those systems, though not as small as Briggsville, are minuscule, serving just a few thousand people. And finding the money to make upgrades? Not easy, outside of big municipalities.
“Water utilities face a trillion dollars of construction and replacement costs to maintain their systems,” Brown said. “The little towns are just going to defer maintenance. And you’ll have systems like this that are leaking water and not very reliable.”
Regulatory demands, like the ones handed down to Briggsville from the state, can pose major challenges. In a 2017 report, the state estimated that local water systems across the commonwealth require improvements totaling $17 billion.
As the DEP probed the Briggsville district over several years, it continued to add mandates. The biggest one: put in a two-day water supply.
The system can store just 2,700 gallons, McKinney says. Customers use 14,000 gallons of water on a typical day. That means the district needs to increase capacity tenfold to create the necessary supply.
Beside the district's storage tank sits a single family home, at 494 River Road. When McKinney’s children were growing up, he says, they played with kids who lived in that house. But, the family long had since left, and the house had fallen into disrepair. People had started dumping mattresses and toys in the yard.
It was the perfect place, McKinney realized, to put a water tank. When the house went up for auction in 2019, he represented the water district, bid and won.
That was only the beginning. To tear down the house, they would have to get hazardous materials out of it. Finding a contractor was nearly impossible, McKinney said — few companies wanted to bear the cost of hauling equipment to Clarksburg, nearly as far from Boston as you can get.
“You get one or two bids, if you’re lucky,” he said. “Then you have to make a decision on whether you’re going to blow this kind of money.”
The coronavirus pandemic hit just as they kicked off the search, and the effort slowed to a crawl. The garage of the abandoned house briefly served as the commissioners' meeting place during the winter. They gathered, spaced out, with the door open.
“It’s not easy to write with gloves on,” McKinney said.
They also tried Zoom meetings, though McKinney does not have a camera on his home computer and still runs Windows 7, almost a decade out of date.
Still, they made progress. This year, they accepted a $19,000 bid to remove hazardous materials. That means tapping into the district’s savings. The district operates on an annual budget of $18,000.
After they get the house down and a storage tank in its place, the commissioners want to hire a firm that can take over Scott’s job. They already tried to find a water operator: McKinney sent letters to everyone with water operator licenses within 50 miles and not a single person with the right credentials was interested. The final step will be adding more shut-offs, McKinney says, to stop leaks from draining the system.
The district gathers for its annual meeting at the end of July, when McKinney thinks rates may rise again. They've shot up in recent years as the district eyes expensive fixes. At the meeting, McKinney also plans to put his name in the hat to serve the district for at least one more year. But, as he searches for a new job, he knows work could take him out of the town.
Before the district no longer is his responsibility, he wants to leave behind order. The system is in a good place right now — no major leaks for months, McKinney says. But, the town needs stability, he thinks, a way to keep the district rolling along, delivering what he describes as “the best water around.” If he leaves, he hopes more people step up to fill his shoes.
He worries about the district, just as he worries about the town’s bridges and roads, about flooding, about whether the infrastructure bill finally will pass Congress and whether a surge of projects might make it impossible for small towns to afford contractors.
It is not clear whether any of the federal government’s proposed funding for wastewater, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure upgrades might be able to help, but McKinney holds out the hope that the district can secure state money to finish the job. For now, though, they are on their own.
“[My generation] inherited a pretty good infrastructure,” he said. “My grandparents and parents, they built a pretty good infrastructure. Now, we’ve run it into the ground.”